Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson: Part 18, Sawing Off the Branch You are Sitting On

Last week we talked about how the "map of meaning" of a culture, its "paradigm," can be threatened and undergo a crisis. According to Peterson, most of these threats are encounters with "strangeness," such as strangers or the strange idea.

But Peterson goes on to describe another force that can place a cultural worldview under strain.

Recall from last week how our maps of meaning are primarily behavioral and implicit, expressed as procedural ("how to") knowledge. Over the course of cognitive evolution, as our capacity for abstraction and analysis grew, we began to make the implicit explicit, explaining ourselves to ourselves. Behavioral norms became encoded in myth and later in religion and law.

But the trouble, Peterson argues, is that as our powers of abstraction and critical analysis advanced they began dismantle and dissolve the norms, myths, and religious beliefs we inherited from our ancestors. Here is Peterson describing this:

Rapid development of semantic skill (and its second-order elaboration into empirical methodology) constitutes the third major threat to the continued stability of sociohistorically determined cultural systems...Linguistically mediated criticism of the predicates of behavior undermines faith in the validity of historically established hierarchical patterns of adaptation. The final emergent process of the developmental chain of abstraction can be applied to undermine the stability of its foundation. The modern and verbally sophisticated individual is therefore always in danger of sawing off the branch on which he or she sits.

Critical and empirical analyses, in undermining cultural myths and religions, come to divorce knowledge from action. The "true" becomes separated from the "good." This creates nihilism and what Nietzsche called "paralysis of the will" as we've sawed off the part of culture that historically guided moral and social action in the world. Peterson summarizes:

The capacity to abstract, to code morality in image and word, has facilitated the communication, comprehension and development of behavior and behavioral interaction. However, the capacity to abstract has also undermined the stability of moral tradition...The capacity to abstract, which has facilitated the communication of very complex and only partially understood ideas, is therefore also the capacity to undermine the very structure that lends predictability to action, and which constrains the a priori meaning of things and situations. Our capacity for abstraction is capable of disrupting our "uncon-seious"--that is, imagistic and procedural-social identity, upsetting our emotional stability and undermining our integrity...Such disruption leaves us vulnerable to possession by simplistic ideologies, and susceptible to cynicism, existential despair, and weakness in the face of threat.

This, according to Peterson, is the root cause of our modern crisis of meaning. Our analytical skills have caused us to dismantle and deconstruct the mythology upon which Western values, morality and meaning was encoded. In stepping into a post-Christian world we've sawn off the branch upon which our culture was sitting, and are now experiencing widespread existential distress, emotional instability and social unrest. In Hunting Magic Eels I describe this as "the Ache."

Stepping back, we find examples of what Peterson describes everywhere. For example, I've just finished Christine Emba's new book Rethinking Sex: A Provocation. Emba's big point is that our modern sexual landscape is characterized by a huge paradox: moral liberation and widespread dissatisfaction. Since the sexual revolution we've dismantled traditional sexual mores and norms, which seems like a win, but now find ourselves unhappy with a sexual marketplace that, beyond mere consent, has no agreed upon limits, expectations, or responsibilities. Young people entering into this liberated "anything goes" sexual world are finding it increasingly treacherous, confusing, demeaning, harmful, dissatisfying, and enduringly sexist.

A second example of what Peterson describes is the widespread phenomenon of "deconstruction" among Christians. Asking deeper and more critical questions about faith and Scripture is a necessary part of spiritual growth and development. However, many who have begun the process of deconstruction can't seem to stop and end up sawing off the branch they were sitting on. Some of the most high profile Christian authors who rode the wave of deconstruction are no longer Christian in any recognizable sense. And we all know people who deconstructed themselves right out of faith. And while my evidence here is very anecdotal, the deconstructed former Christians of my acquaintance and who show up in my inbox seem lost and unwell. 

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